Part Three: Dungeon Master’s Guide
In honor of Dungeon Master Appreciation Month, SLUG Magazine is reviewing the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, one book at a time!
As much as the Dungeon Master is accorded godlike powers in countless jokes and references throughout the world of geekdom, one of the most humbling experiences in the entire game of Dungeons & Dragons is sitting behind the DM screen. You realize very quickly that, while you have virtually complete control over the game world, your players have a monopoly on the story.
The first time I donned the mantle of Dungeon Master, it ended in disaster. I had spent hours the night before writing descriptions of Dwarven architecture and detailing the political chaos that gripped their mountain home. The story, I thought at the time, was subtle and rich and perfect, and I just knew my players would revel in my detailed oration.
About halfway through my description of the Dwarven fortress’ outer gate, my players were yawning. The Non-Player Characters (NPCs) failed to engage my players, and before I could get into the third paragraph of the Dwarvish noble’s opening speech, they began to rebel against the story itself. They all insisted they wanted to leave the fortress immediately.
That wasn’t part of my plan! I kept encouraging them to stay and listen, but they were done hearing me talk. They promptly walked out the front gate, heedless of my seemingly perfect story. I threw together a random encounter with a bunch of skeletons, and they merrily hacked away at them, never to return to the court of that Dwarvish noble, who was probably only halfway done with his speech by then anyway.
A few years later, I figured out why my players staged a coup on my game. The term “railroading” barely even begins to describe my linear plot. I was forcing them to experience my world on my terms, watching the sights float by like a particularly boring and politically complex Disneyland ride.
One of my primary mistakes was not realizing that there are multiple perspectives to world-building. Mine was a god’s-eye view, seeing all of the biggest and most significant details and delivering them with the same pacing as divine decree. Players want to see a world through their own eyes, to have an imperfect perspective that allows them to see your world in a unique way.
A Real World
Part of what really sold me on Fifth Edition was the Dungeon Master’s Guide. From the opening pages, you get the kind of world-building advice you’d expect from an advanced fiction-writing manual, and it starts from the very gods themselves and works its way down to player level.
Starting with the creation of pantheons and gods gives your world a more ancient, primordial essence that can guide you through the rest of the process. How would a culture develop if its primary religion were animist instead of pantheonic? How would society view topics like human sacrifice and freedom of religion if the predominant concept of the cosmos comes from mystery cults or from oracular seerings? Fifth Edition, instead of trying to give you a template for god-building, or a mechanical system for implementing them into the game, gives you story first, and leaves the implementation to your imagination.
Then you have a series of prompts that can help you build a settlement for your adventures to kick off from. The beauty of this section is, again, that the Dungeon Master’s Guide focuses more on details like atmosphere, government and factions than on demographics and game mechanics. It runs through over-arching conflicts that arise from meaningful events in the world to the different flavors of fantasy you can use to stage your campaign.
What interested me most from an existing lore perspective, however, was the manual’s treatment of the planes. Each of the outer and inner planes get a brief description in the first section, staged as examples of the alien constructs that lie beyond the reaches of the material and into the metaphysical. It gives far more detail and imagery to the planes than any previous core book I’ve seen. You used to have to wait for a planar supplement to run an extraplanar adventure, but having the power to do so in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is extremely useful.
This first part is short and sweet, but substantial enough to build a general framework for a longer campaign. However, we’re still looking at the world from a god’s-eye view. The next section takes us deeper.
When it comes down to it, you can spend all the time in the world coming up with an awesome world to set your game in, but still fail to capture the players’ imaginations. That’s why having a separate section dedicated to the art of crafting adventures is so essential.
It seems like with Fifth Edition, the development team has finally realized that adventure crafting happens just as often on the fly as it does before the session begins. Each section contains a multitude of randomization tables that can help you come up with challenges and conflicts whenever your players decide they want to walk out of an important audience with Dwarven nobility. Similar to the way Backgrounds worked in the Player’s Handbook, these are a series of charts that help you generate ideas by rolling dice and combining the results. One chart even helps you decide what kinds of events are going on in the immediate vicinity of the characters, helping you link the overarching events of the world to local events. Not only do these charts give you great ideas for dungeon goals, but they can even help you figure out what kind of villain players will be facing and what their objectives are. One even deals with how the characters’ own objectives are met with resistance through ancillary ties to the plot. It’s almost terrifying the kind of power you wield with these tables.
Nowadays, I’m used to building things carefully, but with enough holes for my characters to step through to find their own adventures. That means I end up having to come up with a lot of adventure hooks while I’m roleplaying a shopkeeper or rushing the players with a small group of monsters. Being able to roll on these tables gives me a solid prompt to improvise from and gives me and my players a greater sense of belonging to the world we’re creating.
As the second section continues, it details the kinds of things you expect to see in a Dungeon Master’s Guide—stuff like how to scale encounters and generate NPCs. However, even in the most story-centric RPGs, I’ve always found that rolling an NPC is about as involved as making a character unless you skip a lot of steps. In Fifth Edition, story trumps everything. NPCs are rolled less like stat blocks and more like backgrounds, with their ideals, bonds and flaws giving them a stronger tie to the game world than a mere character sheet. Villains are treated like NPCs, and their schemes and methods can be determined by what is, by far, the most elaborate randomization table I’ve seen in a D&D book since 3rd Edition. Your players will never suspect that the deeply flawed and relatable villain they oppose was actually put together on the spot with a series of dice rolls.
The randomization tables, though, have only begun. Want to come up with a cool location for a dungeon? How about a really weird or alien landscape? Maybe you want to populate a relatively featureless waste with cleverly placed monuments to help your players on their way. All of that is here, along with rules for surviving (or failing to survive) in the various climes that adventuring tends to go on in. One of my favorite parts of the whole book is here with the random settlement generator. You can end up with some seriously interesting combinations this way, but none of them feel too wacky or flatly incompatible. When I rolled a tavern on my list of random buildings, I loved that the table could give me a name as memorable and creepy as “The Leering Jester” for a dingy gambling hall—further fuel for my imagination.
However, not all adventures are merely about strange and distant locales and the strange folk who populate them. When all else fails, there’s one thing that can motivate your party better than anything.
One hundred pages. That is how long the Treasures chapter of the Dungeon Master’s Guide is. Just for reference, that’s just under a third of the entire length of the book. This section is more than just a catalogue of the different magical items dreamed up by various denizens of the multiverse, though. This is a comprehensive guide to building and balancing the rewards that you give your players in the game, and can actually net your players some of the most iconic and memorable trinkets and gear they’ll find in any game.
However, if long lists of awesome-sounding items are what you’re looking for, have no fear. The list of items in the Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide easily outpaces the one found in D&D 3.5—a monumental task, to be sure. What’s more, there’s a much greater emphasis on wondrous items that do cool, plot-related things, rather than a whole list of sparkly adventuring gear for your loot-hungry party.
Even so, the interesting inclusion to this list is a list of non-tangible rewards like titles, honors and epic boons. While your party will certainly remember the evil sentient sword that tried to kill them all, these intangibles feel more like a strict upgrade to your character, increasing their importance to the game world and even their effectiveness in combat.
Mastering the Game
While the other two sections deal principally with how to make a game world enticing for your players, this last section deals mainly with the rules. It contains a brief visual explanation of combat and the various ways of handling damage to creatures and objects. However, something really cool is that this section actually explains the differences between square- and hexagon-based grid combat. Beyond that, the section is littered with neat ideas for optional rules and tweaks you can make to the combat system to make it more challenging. However, combat is only one part of the equation. This section handles chases, sieges, diseases, poisons, honor and madness, giving you a diverse palette of options for any adventure, each with their own share of rules and suggestions.
You’d think that was enough, but the last main chapter of the book is all about optional rules. You can build new abilities and backgrounds using these suggestions, or even set your adventures in the far future with Renaissance, modern and far-future weapons and items. I’ve always been pretty dissatisfied with sections like these in the past, but Fifth Edition cuts absolutely no corners in its pursuit of customization. There is a step-by-step process for how to create a monster’s stat block and determine its XP, abilities and other attributes. It even leads you through the process of crafting new races, classes and magic items. All of these sections are robust and useful, instead of merely giving general advice.
You reach the end of this chapter thinking you’ve finally seen all there is to see in this wild new system. Then you turn the page to Appendix A, arguably the most ambitious and innovative section of the whole book. This is the section that deals with randomized dungeons. I’m going to be using this one quite a bit over my next few campaigns. Like the rest of the book, it seems like this was developed with both planning and improvising in mind. I have yet to see such a generator work competently, which is likely why RPG publishers have avoided them in the past, but I get a good feeling from this one.
Roll the Dice
Fifth Edition, to my eyes, is the new gold standard for D20-based tabletop RPGs. It strips away the tedium of systems and statistics and replaces them with the true substance of role playing—deep, immersive stories. I’ve often found that the Dungeon Master’s Guide was the most vestigial of all the D&D manuals, but Fifth Edition has elevated this previously tertiary book into something far more important and useful.
Now I know it’s the first thing I’ll turn to when I’m planning a campaign or even just a one-off improvised adventure. The advice contained within its pages is a genuine guide to creating high-quality collaborative fiction, and I’ll probably crack it open every now and then when I want to spice up my fantasy writing.
Dungeon Masters of the world, rejoice. Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition is more than just a return to faded glory—it’s a gleaming gem of a system that I can’t wait to explore even more.